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Blumka Gallery


by Brook S. Mason
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It just so happens that avant-gardists Jeff Koons and Georg Baselitz are both members of an esoteric collecting fraternity, devoted to medieval and Baroque works of art. A growing number of contemporary artists as well as contemporary art collectors are crossing over into this area, according to Munich dealer Florian Eitle-Böhler.

To see firsthand the crème de la crème of such works of art, take in Blumka Gallery’s seventh installment of “Collecting Treasures of the Past,” a collaboration with Kunsthandlung Julius Böhler in Stamberg, Germany. In terms of quality, this show of over 80 rare and historically important items rivals the treasures of the august Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters, too.

Simply consider a shimmering 17th-century ivory depicting the Greek myth of Pluto and Poserpina, a sculpture of vigorous motion and sinuous curves characteristic of the Baroque era. “It’s the one of only five outstanding Baroque ivories in the entire world,” says Tony Blumka. “That demonstrates its rarity,” he said.

That ivory of Pluto, the fearful god of the underworld, abducting the delicate goddess Proserpina is by no less a master than Matthias Steinl (1643/44-1727), sculptor to the Viennese imperial court. While the ivory on its original base had been in the Rothschild collection, its authorship prior had been a mere attribution. Bohler and Tony Blumka plucked up at Sotheby’s two years ago, exhaustively researched that example and confirmed its attribution to Steinl.

And the price? A staggering $3.8 million. Not everything is in the stratosphere, far from it. What’s on view includes objects used for liturgical purposes like communion plates along with more personal items such as boxwood combs, narwhal cups, 13th-century enameled belt mounts and 12th-century ivory game pieces. “It’s highly unusual to find things that are non-religious from the Middle Ages, as so much has been lost and the church was all encompassing,” said Bohler.

One example, a French boxwood comb with inlaid with intricate decoration in bone, ebony and pewter, dates from 1500. A similar comb without such rich decoration can be found in a Berlin museum. This one bears a $53,000 price tag.

Another recent discovery is a seated angel made of linden wood with original gilding by Johann Joseph Christian, ca. 1760. “Its mate is in Bavarian National Museum in Munich while this one had been locked up in a Swiss private collection,” said Blumka. The cost is $190,000. Also newly discovered is a Burgundian sculpture of a small 15th-century Madonna and Christ Child with Saint Anne. It was found in a European regional auction house.

Bohler points to a recent change in collecting such material. “Fifteen years ago you couldn’t sell figures of old men or a skeleton,” he said. Now the tables have turned. Bohler points to an ivory of Saint Magdalene who is clutching a skull by the Flemish artist Francis van Bossuit (1635-1692), which is certain to sell. Some examples are relatively modest in price. A lead plaquette, a small medal of a beggar dating from 1535, is a mere $7,000.

Furniture is also available. Consider a 17th-century Italian walnut traveling table with folding legs. The top is inlaid with mother of pearl medallions and ivory to commemorate Julius II, the patron of Raphael and Michelangelo.

Already, 14 sales have been finalized. What’s the rather sudden allure of such examples? “Clients want to recreate their identity as a collector from the 17th century,” says Blumka. “They are seeking a personal kunstkammer, but one no longer restricted to a single period,” he adds, noting that collectors mix early material with tribal and Asian art. The field is definitely busy, as investment bankers, lawyers and physicians join sophisticated avant-gardists in the market.

“Collecting Treasures of the Past VII,” Jan. 26-Feb. 10, 2012, at Blumka Gallery, 209 East 72nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10021

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.